Elon Musk’s Twitter disbanded its Trust and Safety Council in December, not long after the self-described “free-speech absolutist” bought the social media platform. But while the council is gone, it seems as if the tech tycoon himself is deciding what will be considered hate speech on the site based on his own private views.
In March, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO told his millions of followers that he found “cis” to be personally offensive, and now it appears that it will be an indexed term whose use could result in an account suspension for those who employ it.
“The words ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ are considered slurs on this platform,” Musk posted in response to a man who claimed to have been harassed by the term used perjoratively.
“Repeated, targeted harassment against any account will cause the harassing accounts to receive, at minimum, temporary suspensions.”
The term “cisgender” and its short form “cis”—from the Latin meaning “on this side,” and the root opposite of “trans”—came into popular use as a way of describing people who feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Twitter’s new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, did not respond to a request for comment from Fortune.
‘Cis’ as a slur
Behavioral scientist Caroline Orr Bueno, who tracks online misinformation and hate speech, said Musk may have ventured into new territory with his latest policy.
“As far as I’m aware, this is the first time a social media platform has designated the term ‘cis’ as a slur,” she wrote.
When the Tesla and SpaceX CEO acquired Twitter for $44 billion in October, Musk promised to foster a town hall atmosphere where even his most ardent detractors were welcome “because that is what free speech means.”
However, the serial entrepreneur and world’s richest person appears to at times have let his own personal views shape and inform his policies governing what can and cannot be said on the platform.
Before his current decision to declare “cis” and “cisgender” slurs, the Twitter owner, whose transgender child has disowned him, has been critical of trans protections and in April removed rules banning deliberate “misgendering” or “deadnaming” of users—in other words, prohibitions on employing the name trans users had before they transitioned.
Repeated, targeted harassment against any account will cause the harassing accounts to receive, at minimum, temporary suspensions.
The words “cis” or “cisgender” are considered slurs on this platform.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 21, 2023
Also, to coincide with the start of Pride Month, Musk agreed to actively promote What Is a Woman?, an online film meant to delve into gender definitions that was produced by the right-wing Daily Wire and is considered offensive by many in the LGBTQ community.
Initially the Twitter content moderation team had limited the reach of What Is a Woman? by flagging the controversial film for “hateful conduct,” but they were subsequently overruled by Musk. The movie has since gone on to garner over 185 million views, thanks in part to Musk’s explicit endorsement.
In the immediate aftermath of that reversal, Musk’s second head of trust and safety left the company, claiming to have resigned.
His first, Yoel Roth, resigned in November shortly after Musk took over, and went on to openly criticize the entrepreneur for his “impulsive changes” that “made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots”—a claim that appears to be prescient.
A month later Musk implied the former Twitter safety chief was in favor of sexualizing children, reportedly prompting Roth to flee his home alongside his husband.
Twitter does belong to Musk and his investors, meaning they are within their rights to act with their property as they see fit. But Musk has often adopted the moral high ground of untrammeled free speech in his justification for buying the platform. In this context, applying new prohibitions on certain terms could be seen as contradictory to this claim.
This isn’t the first time Musk has appeared to use his influence as owner to remove or limit content he deemed to be personally damaging, undesired, or that does not align with his views.
The Tesla boss suspended an account called ElonJet that posted the movements of his private Gulfstream, claiming it was a threat to his personal safety by “doxxing” him in real time.
And this month, he blocked one of his critics who had made available redacted legal filings involving X Corp that revealed the parent company of Twitter sought to keep the identity of its 95 shareholders under seal.